Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » July 2005 » Best Fourth of July Posts....

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07/05/2005: Best Fourth of July Posts....

Jo Fish calls this "the best July 4th post ever". Until just recently, I wasn't inclined to disagree. But do give it a read; it's well worth remembering that the 4th came shortly after another significant "statement" by Dubya.

But for Best July4th post this year I have to give the nod to Billmon:

I was driving back from a quick trip out of town the other day, and -- on an impulse -- grabbed lunch at a hot dog stand by the side of the highway. I've driven by the place plenty of times (I used to live nearby) but hot dogs aren't one of my staple foods, so I'd never stopped before. But curiosity finally got the better of me.

"Jimmy John's," the sign read. "Home of piping hot sandwiches and the world's best hot dogs." Under the sign was a low brick building with an addition hanging awkwardly on one side. The place looked like it had been around forever -- or at least since 1940, according to the sign.

I went in and bought a dog and a coke and sat down to eat. It was pretty good -- maybe not the world's best, but a lot better than what you get from Oscar Meyer. And piping hot, too.

As I sat there eating, I gradually realized I was surrounded by someone else's life -- Jimmy John's life, to be precise. The walls of the place were covered with photos, newspaper clippings, posters, old calendars and plaques from various civic groups, all documenting the life and times of a hot dog stand owner in a little corner of formerly rural, now suburban, Pennsylvania.

There was a picture of a Jimmy John in an apron and bow tie, standing in front of his original stand -- a tiny box with a counter and an awning and nothing much else -- on opening day. There were pictures of the somewhat larger enclosed lunch counter he built after he returned from the war. And pictures of the existing brick building, which went up in the '60s. There were pictures of what looked to be every single pimply teenager who'd ever worked behind his counter -- and half his customers, too. There was a framed double-page spread from the local newspaper, commemorating the 35th anniversary celebration in 1975. ("Fight inflation, eat at Jimmy John's.") And there were pictures of his retirement party, his 85th birthday party and, finally, a clip of his obituary, dated 2002.

Interspersed with Jimmy John's memorabilia were other local scenes: A crowd watching a horse race at the Montgomery County fair, 1948. Putting the final girders in place on the Commodore Barry bridge, 1963. A newspaper story, with photo, about a two-story outhouse in a nearby hamlet, 1982.

I was looking, in other words, at a thick slice of Americana, dating roughly from the New Deal to 9/11. And looking at the tables around me, I saw a fairly representative slice of middle America -- a little thick around the waist and with absolutely no fashion sense whatsoever, ignorant of the world outside their borders and of much of what lies within them, obsessed with shiny material objects, gullilble in the extreme. But also friendly (sometimes to a fault), loyal, unpretentious, usually honest and often kind. The common man -- the same one who's been coming to Jimmy Johns for the past 65 years.


And I thought to myself: "Well, this is still a pretty great country."

But I was also painfully aware that the reasons why I felt that way had a lot more to do with America's past than its present -- much less its future.

I'm not a big fan of patriotism, at least not as most Americans understand the word. Patriotism is just another word for nationalism, and nationalism in my book is the modern equivalent of the black plague -- an incubator of xenophobia at its least, a killer of millions at its absolute worst. And we've seen enough of the absolute worst over the past century to understand where nationalism could ultimately lead: the extinction of the entire human race.

Still, there are emotional attachments to home -- to the familiar, the dear, the remembered -- that go deeper than the intellect and pull harder than reason. Tribal loyalty is a powerful thing. On the morning of 9/11, I was as much a patriot as any man or woman alive, and would have greedily torn Bin Ladin to pieces with my own hands to avenge "our" dead.

But hatred and revenge are patriotism's curse, not its justification. When Lincoln spoke of "mystic cords of memory" and urged his countrymen to put their common heritage ahead of their political divisions, he wasn't appealing to their tribal loyalties, but their loyalty to an ideal: democratic government under the law. If American patriotism has any claim to be an exception to the general run of blind national chauvinism, it has to be found in that idea. If America is to be an exceptional nation, one worth glorifying above all others, it has to be because of the quality of her justice and the strength of her democracy -- not because of the language she speaks, or the God she worships or the color of her skin. And not because of her material wealth or military power or imperial ambitions. Least of all those.

Pat Buchanan and I agree on very few things, but he wrote something many years ago that I can endorse wholeheartedly: "America was a great country before she was a rich country." In many ways a greater country, I would probably add -- not because she was poor (if you've seen real poverty, Third World poverty, you know there's nothing to admire about it) but because she stood a little less apart from the rest of humanity, and had to rely a little more heavily on the promises inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, rather than power of her aircraft carriers, to impress the world.

What I saw in Jimmy John's hot dog stand was the ghost of an America I used to know -- a land of little guys looking for a place to build something. Of strong unions and good-paying jobs that didn't require a PhD. Of black and white televisions where you could watch the cheesiest ads imaginable. Of corner drug stores and transistor radios and long evenings spent sitting on the front porch, talking to the neighbors.


But the America on Jimmy John's walls, while far from perfect, at least believed in the
possibility of its own improvement. It accepted -- if only out of lingering memories of the Great Depression -- the need for a certain degree of social justice. It distrusted wealth and corporate power and believed, perhaps too much, in the ability of government to help the little guy. It actually thought democracy could work.

Most of all, Jimmy John's America was a country where injustice and corruption and the arrogance of power occasionally ran into organized opposition -- and sometimes even lost. It was the country of Martin Luther King and Marcus Raskin and Saul Alinksy and Caesar Chavez, of Students for a Democratic Society (the pre-Weatherman version) and the March on Washington (all of them), of Pete Seeger and Earth Day, of Stonewall and the Equal Rights Amendment.

Those people, too, believed democracy could work -- if it was given a little push.

But that America is either dead or dying, with the remains memorialized on restaurant walls, or eulogized in essays like this one -- like fossilized insects frozen in amber. Looking through the window of Jimmy John's, I could almost see the mega mall just down the highway, with its chain restaurants and fast food franchises -- the leading edge of a wave of development moving north towards the outer suburbs of Philly. And I realized it won't be too long before the wave hits, and Jimmy John's is bulldozed to make room for a Burger King or a MacDonalds.

You could say the same thing about democracy. America doesn't really believe in democracy any more. It's just a slogan used to sell unpopular wars, or justify the greasy manuevers of a corrupt political machine. America doesn't want social justice, either -- just a few extra crumbs from the tables of the wealthy. It worships power and material success and expects those who don't to hold their tongues. It hears what it wants to hear and sees what it wants to see, and it has a corporate media establishment increasingly dedicated to ensuring that it always does.

Scanning the American Street this 4th of July, I see items such as this:
Conservatives say . . . they have found a formula that will allow them gradually to control the judiciary and revisit the full range of precedents regarding abortion, affirmative action, church-state matters and regulations of business and the environment.
And this:
Mississippi, a state blessed with something like 25% of its population already Medicaid eligible, announced the deepest Medicaid cuts in the nation, including a limitation to no more than five prescriptions (and two non-generics) per month. Not surprisingly, the cause of the cuts is reduced federal funding to the Medicaid program . . .
And this:
Parsley’s call to action bristles with the metaphors of war. In his writings, he casts himself as a gladiator for God, advancing on “the very hordes of hell in our society” . . . He has preached [the] prosperity gospel while accumulating vast personal wealth, including a $1 million, five-bedroom, 5 1/2-bath house with a swimming pool; a $63,000 Cadillac and a $68,000 Lexus LX470 for himself and his wife, Joni; and a $5,000 Polaris all-terrain vehicle.
I read stuff like that and I can see the America that I used to know vanishing before my eyes. And so is the only thing -- the ideal of democratic government under the law -- that could justify being a "patriotic" American.

Without that ideal, patriotism is just tribalism: the mindless glorification of "us" and the demonization of "them." And in the case of America, "us" includes a long list of right-wing idiots who I feel absolutely no affinity with or loyalty to -- beginning with Rush Limbaugh and continuing through the loudmouth Bush supporter who sits just outside my office. I don't want to be in their tribe. And I sure the hell don't want them in mine.

As for the rest of my fellow Americans? Their lives are no more -- and no less -- precious than any other group of human beings with a flag and a national anthem. I don't wish them ill, but the moments when I feel any emotionally solidarity with them (like on the morning of 9/11, or, briefly, in Jimmy John's the other day) are becoming quite rare. I don't really feel like I even know them any more.

Which means that if I still support the war on terrorism, or hope that America finds a way out of the Iraq quagmire, or wish for a more successful U.S. foreign policy, it's not out of patriotism. I live in the United States, my family lives here, and we're not moving, at least not any time soon. That being the case, I'd rather not see it nuked, or hit with a dirty bomb, or anthrax or smallpox. I'd also rather not live in a complete police state, which is what we may get if any of those things happen. That's not patriotism -- just the instinct for self preservation.

But not loving America -- or rather, what America is fast becoming -- isn't the same as believing there are no worse things than America. Bin Ladin and the fanatics who follow him aren't evil because they're the enemies of America, they're evil because they're evil -- because they slaughter innocent people, promote religious hatred and would rather see the Islamic world impoverished and ignorant than freed from their medieval fantasies.

Opposing that also isn't patriotism -- just common human decency, and a (probably vain) hope for a better world than this shit pile we live in.

It's a strange place to end up: a man without a country, grudgingly supporting the country he no longer has because the alternatives are so much worse. But that's how it goes, I guess, in this world of empires and religious fanatics. This hasn't been the kind of 4th of July essay I would have liked to have written -- or might have written in years gone by. But I'm too old and too disgusted to go through the motions of celebrating the national holiday, not when reality is pressing down so hard on the back of my neck.

If that be treason, I suppose I'll just have to learn how to make the most of it.

Len on 07.05.05 @ 12:53 PM CST

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